Negative Indicators


When we get reports on the People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) results, the NSW Public Sector understandably pays attention to the good news. That’s fair enough. Celebrating what is getting better is a good thing. But it also directs our attention away from the magnitude of the negatives. I don’t want to dwell on the negatives in some morbid way. But if we convert percentages into people numbers, we can become more aware of the human story the negatives tell us.

Below I look at negative ratings from the PMES at 15% and higher. I don’t like dealing in parts of people, so let’s say 15% is 3 people in 20. Imagine a room with 20 people in it and then imagine that 3 of them flat out say their experience is negative. To assist, 20% is one person in 5 (4 in 20) and 25% or higher is at least one person in 4 (5 in 20).

The document I rely upon is 2021 NSW Public Sector report.

Scoping the problem

What we have to ask ourselves, from an inclusion perspective, is how many negative assessments are okay? Women make up 59% of the NSW public sector. We have no idea what that means in terms of the level of sex discrimination. What I can tell you is that sex discrimination is alive and well and living in our organisations in some regard.

Based on the 2021 PMES scores we know what a breakdown of the workforce across the sector looks like:


  • Female 59%
  • Non-Binary 0% (However responses from non-binary staff are shown – p. 38)
  • Prefer Not to Say 9%


  • 55+ 18%
  • Prefer Not to Say 15%

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander:

  • Yes 3%
  • Prefer Not to Say 6%


  • Yes 5%
  • Prefer Not to Say 5%


  • Yes 5%
  • Prefer Not to Say 6%

Language Other Than English spoken at home:

  • Yes 21%
  • Prefer Not to Say 6%

When we allow for intersectionalities (when 2 or more of these ‘diversity’ attributes are shared by an individual) we can see that we cannot assume that a staff member with disability is experiencing discrimination because of their disability alone. It is therefore essential to consider the range of people who may be vulnerable to discrimination as a whole, rather than try to isolate specific disability related discrimination. We cannot know whether discrimination is disability specific when other ‘diversity’ attributes also apply.

How do we know whether a woman aged 55+ with a disability, or an Aboriginal man aged 55+ with a disability, both of whom have reported discrimination and bullying, have been targeted solely because of their disability?

What the PMES does not tell us

We do not know whether the people who record negative assessments when they respond to the PMES questionnaire belong to the ‘diversity’ groups who most frequently experience discrimination. But we cannot assume they do not.

For this reason, celebrating a ‘good’ score of 85% still might mean that the 15% who gave a negative assessment were members of a ‘diversity’ group. While it is a good thing that improving indicators show progress in addressing issues, those indicators have a natural ‘spongey ceiling’ – when discrimination kicks in and things improve not at all, or very slowly, for members of ‘diversity’ groups. 

Celebrating improvements when a significant proportion of a workforce remains discontent can seem pretty insensitive. Admissions that ‘there is more work to be done’ or ‘we must try harder’ don’t really cut it; if there is no demonstrable commitment to try harder and do that extra work. We have to ask ourselves what that looks like. Public sector agencies are capable of strategic planning – in fact it is essential – so some clear, measurable, and accountable plans that are time limited would be great.

The PMES crunches raw numbers. It does not tell us whether an agency has a plan that is accountable. This is despite the fact that all NSW agencies must have a Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP). But these do not have to have staff-related accountable objectives. Inclusion plans are common across the sector – but no plan has intrinsic merit. It must be implemented, monitored, and have accountability built in.

The politics and economics of inclusion

Public sector agencies face real budget restraints, which mean they must work smarter and harder – and that puts real cognitive pressure on staff. This means that staff can be time poor and attention poor – and among the many things that must be done, or should be done, some things fall off the crowded table. Inclusion tends to be one of those things.

Agencies have an obligation to meet the ‘inherent rights’ of those who experience exclusion and discrimination, and this requires an application of effort that is able to deliver the ‘best bang for the bucks’ – value for money essentially.  

That isn’t an easy thing to do. It requires knowledge, coordination and collaboration, planning, prioritisation, and accountability. In short, it must be intentional and prioritised, rather than set aside as something that must contest for available resources.

This is the problem with the notion of an inherent right, especially one backed by legislation and policy. As I have noted in my earlier posts on bias, there is a risk that some will see, in their efforts to manage demands and limited resources, that an inherent right to inclusion is still subject to the risk of being thought something that can be delayed, or deferred, on resource grounds. This flips the inherent right claim into the granting of a gift by those who control access to resources.

This is not a criticism. It is a tension inherent between an organisation and its staff. The PMES provides regular evidence that what is delivered by an organisation and what is experienced by staff doesn’t always accord as okay. The point here is that an inherent rightshouldn’t be part of that tension, but it seems to be.

All organisations operate with a certain level of risk. A reasonable appetite for risk is better than being risk averse. However, when that translates as an appetite for the denial of inherent rights it’s time to rethink priorities. I don’t think this issue has been engaged with to a sufficient degree of transparency. The fact that the rights to inclusion, and freedom from discrimination are enshrined in law and policy have not been instantly acknowledged can suggest that these things are ‘works in progress’. The problem with such an attitude is that it translates as a ‘granting’ of a right as if it is a gift to be bestowed, rather than an inherent and inalienable entitlement.

The private sector is doing better because it has a measurable bottom line and an imperative to grow profits. For example, in the US an aversion to being sued in discrimination cases and the recognition that inclusion is good for business by several measures motivates business to be more actively engaged in inclusion action. Much more is being invested in developing senior leaders’ capacity to drive inclusion across their companies and their business areas.

The solution for the public sector is for an informed conversation with those impacted, and a commitment to some innovative solutions, with a sense of urgency injected.

Which response is from a staff member who experiences discrimination?

Below is a table of PMES responses where 15% or more of respondents have given a flat-out negative response – saying the statement is not true. There are 24 of them. I am not saying all the negative responses are from a diversity group. The anonymity of the survey means we cannot know.

If most of the 15% of respondents who gave a negative rating to the statement “I have the tools and technology to do my job well” were people with disability, we would have to interpret the result very differently. A result showing 85% of staff are happy with their tools and equipment is great news, but if we knew who the other 15% were any celebrating might be restrained.

I have confidence in the way recruitment decisions are made 29%
Change is managed well in my organisation 28%
 I have the time to do my job well 26%
I am confident my organisation will act on the results of this survey 26%
I am satisfied with the opportunities available for career development in my organisation 25%
I am paid fairly for the work I do 24%
Senior managers listen to employees23%
I have confidence in the ways my organisation handles grievances 22%
My organisation generally selects capable people to do the job 21%
I receive adequate recognition for my contributions from my organisation 21%
People in my organisation take responsibility for their own actions 21%
I can keep my work stress at an acceptable level 20%
Senior managers keep employees informed about what’s going on 20%
There is good co-operation between teams across my organisation 19%
My organisation is committed to developing its employees 19%
My manager appropriately deals with employees who perform poorly 19%
Senior managers provide clear direction for the future of the organisation 19%
I get the support I need to do my job well 17%
My performance is assessed against clear criteria 16%
In the last 12 months, I have received feedback to help me improve my work16%
Senior managers model the values of my organisation 16%
My organisation motivates me to help it achieve its goals 15%
My organisation inspires me to do the best in my job 15%
I have the tools and technology to do my job well 15%


The above table tells us that, on average the negative feedback relates to 3 people in 20 7 times, 4 people in 20 12 times and 5 people in 20 5 times

Inclusion is for everybody, not the majority. The reason inclusion is an issue is that it means the end of exclusion from the majority. The PMES is a fantastic tool – if we use it the right way – and do not bias our interpretation in favour of the majority. Good numbers are great, but the smaller negative numbers must be interrogated with a sensitive awareness that exclusion and discrimination apply most frequently to members of minority groups.

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